The results of Building's IT survey show an industry in which management and staff see eye-to-eye on spending and lack of training but part company over laptops and voice-recognition software.
Just before Christmas, Building launched its web site ( with a survey of readers' views on information technology. The aim was to find out about the role IT plays in their businesses, how much they spend on it and what they plan for the future. To avoid overzealous IT managers skewing the results, two sets of questions were published, one for decision-makers, the other for ordinary users.

The results make interesting reading, particularly where the views of the two groups of respondents diverge. Decision-makers appear to have different views from their staff on future investment and use of the Internet. They also seem to be less anxious about the millennium bug and levels of boardroom support for IT.

On the crucial question of how much construction companies are investing in IT, the decision-makers reported anything from 0.5% to 5% of turnover. Most IT users were broadly satisfied with spending levels. This relatively low level of dissatisfaction is noteworthy in an industry that is viewed as far less IT-enabled than manufacturing.

Where spending is planned, it seems to be heading for hardware upgrades rather than new technology or software. This does not surprise the Business and Accounting Software Developers Association, as its members have reported falling sales and profits over the past 18 months. The association believes that budgets have been bled dry by the millennium bug and the euro, so companies have little money spare.

If that is true, 1999 could be a key year for IT in the industry. With provisions for millennium bug diagnostics largely spent, this could be the time for decision-makers to start looking further ahead. It could also be the time for ordinary IT users to make their views on priorities heard more clearly.

1 Who replied?

There were 120 responses to the questionnaire. Just under half the respondents answered the questions designed for information technology decision-makers; the rest fell into the category of IT users or enthusiasts. Most respondents demonstrated their IT literacy by responding on-line on Building's new web site – 68 replies were sent this way.

In both the decision-makers and the enthusiasts categories, the respondents represented a wide cross-section of the industry. Staff of main contractors formed the largest group in each section, at 17% and 25% respectively. Their employers were predominantly medium-sized companies employing 21 to 200 people, with another peak for major contractors with more than 500 staff. The next most frequent groups of respondents were small building and quantity surveying practices, followed by medium-sized architecture practices. Other respondents described themselves as working for housing associations, developers or product manufacturers.

2 What do they use IT for and what kit do they have?

Predictably, about 90% of both the decision-makers and enthusiasts ticked the box for "general business", but there were a few surprises where other specialist applications were concerned. The use of databases to beef up sales and marketing seems to have made little impact – across the two categories, databases were used by only 12% of main contractors, 28% of specialist contractors and 33% of project managers.

There also appeared to be mismatches between what the decision-makers thought was in use and what the non-decision-makers were working with, although the two groups did not necessarily come from the same companies. For instance, only two in five of the specialist contractor decision-makers said they used estimating software, a result that looks higher when you consider that no non-IT staff in the same category said they used it.

There was similar confusion over document management software. A quarter of the decision-makers said they used it, compared with 8% in the enthusiasts category. The discrepancy could be explained by the lack of an agreed definition of what document management consists of.

Most respondents appeared to be working on up-to-date PCs powered by Pentium II processors – 67% of the decision-makers and 52% of the enthusiasts said these were in use in their companies. Half of each group was also using older Pentium processors, and 25% and 14% respectively still had staff limping along with older 486 or 286 machines. The only Apple Mac buyers were architects, although even among these firms, there were more PC purchasers than Mac buyers. One solitary architect had invested in an iMac.

3 How much do they spend on IT – and do staff think it is enough?

There was a wide spread of responses from the decision-makers. The largest single group was the 31% who spent less than 0.5% of turnover on IT last year, but a sizeable 15% invested 2-3% and one in 10 claimed to spend more than 5%. However, the three highest spending groups were dominated by respondents who fell outside the main business definitions, for example, clients and potential producers.

Not surprisingly, the most parsimonious spenders were smaller main and specialist contractors (less than £20m turnover). On average, the building surveyors spent more than the quantity surveyors, and the architects spent more than the consulting engineers. In their own estimation, 58% of the decision-makers thought they were spending enough to keep up to date. Half the building and quantity surveyors were among the 35% concerned that too little was being spent.

Enthusiasts who believed their employers were spending enough on IT (44%) slightly outnumbered their dissatisfied colleagues (41%). However, 10% agreed with the statement that their employers were spending "too much" on IT. The perception of under-investment was strongest among contractors and project managers, whereas consultants were generally happy with spending levels. A serious investment shortfall was reported in just a handful of questionnaires.

4 What are their attitudes to IT?

Decision-makers' and enthusiasts' views on their companies' attitudes to IT were fairly close. Respectively, 38% and 27% thought their employers were "keen customers of new technologies", and 31% and 30% thought they were "keen, but hampered by budget". There was a wider variance on the view that the company was "keen, but hampered by management" (6% of decision-makers, 17% of enthusiasts). The view that the company was more interested in exploiting existing IT rather than investing in new technologies was most common among main contractors' decision-makers.

5 Which investments are they considering – or hoping for – in the coming year?

Here, there were interesting contrasts between what the IT decision-makers planned to spend their budgets on and what their staff actually wanted. For example, laptop or notebook computers were top of the shopping list for the decision-makers – 50% plan to invest in them, including all the consulting engineers – but only a quarter of the enthusiasts reported a desire to have one. A case of staff not being as keen on working on the move as their managers? The most obvious discrepancy was in voice-recognition software, favoured by 42% of the enthusiasts and not a single decision-maker. Staff of main contractors and building surveyors were the most anxious to try the new technology. More than a third of the enthusiasts – including all the architects – were aspiring digital photographers, but, again, none of the decision-makers had plans to purchase the necessary kit.

6 Which IT issues are of most concern?

Training loomed largest for both groups.

There was an ironic similarity between the number of decision-makers worried about "undertrained end-users" (35%) and the proportion of enthusiasts complaining about lack of training (31%). In fact, 46% of the enthusiasts said the training they had received in the past year was inadequate, including half the main contractors staff and two-thirds of the specialists.

The single biggest problem for the decision-makers was skills shortages for IT specialists, reported by 40%. However, none of the decision-makers would admit to sleepless nights about "projects going overbudget". Other concerns mentioned were software incompatibility and availability.

Decision-makers appeared to be more relaxed than their staff about complications arising from the euro and the millennium bug. When non-decision-makers were questioned more closely about the millennium bug, only 30% thought their employers were fully prepared, whereas 55% subscribed to the "live and learn" philosophy.

7 Do they have Internet access and what do they use it for ?

Just over half the enthusiasts (52%) had access to the Internet direct from their desktop and another 24% could use a shared machine. A technologically underprivileged 23% had no Internet access. These findings tally with the decision-makers' figures: 43% had access on 50-100% of their machines, and 23% had access on fewer than 5%. Main contractors were most likely to be in this category. Among the decision-makers, 44% said their company had a web site, but most did not know how many visits a month it received. One consulting engineer ticked "none". The 56% that had no presence on the web included three-quarters of the main contractors and all of the building surveyors.

Internet use is viewed differently by decision-makers and enthusiasts. More enthusiasts than managers embraced the Internet as a means of project communication; the decision-makers had more faith in the Internet as a source of technical information. And, oddly enough, the decision-makers were more inclined to admit that the Internet was used to find non-work-related information.